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Crucial conversations summary


crucial conversations summary


Chapter 1: What’s a crucial conversation? And who cares?

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. —GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High is an amazing book by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan

Crucial Conversation by definition is a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.

The crucial conversations the authors are referring to are interactions that happen to everyone. They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life.


crucial conversations


Despite the importance of crucial conversations, we often back away from them because we fear we’ll make matters worse. We’ve become masters at avoiding tough conversations. We use all kinds of tactics to dodge touchy issues. We act in self-defeating ways.

When conversations turn from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble. That’s because emotions don’t exactly prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.

Most of the time, we simply avoid crucial conversations. The choice is ours, we can face them and handle them poorly or we can face them and handle them well.

Examples of crucial conversations

– Ending a Relationship

– Talking to a colleague who behaves in an offensive manner and makes inappropriate comments

– Asking a friend to repay a loan

– Gives feedback to the boss about his behavior

– Approaching a boss who does not respect his own safety or quality rules

– Criticize the work of a colleague

– Asking a roommate to leave

– Resolve support or visitation issues with a former spouse

– Managing a rebellious teenager

– Talking to a team member who is not living up to his or her commitments

– Discuss problems with sexual intimacy

– Confronting a friend about a substance abuse problem

– Talk to a colleague who keeps the information or resources to himself or herself

– Give a negative assessment of performance

– Asking in-laws to stop interfering in family life

– Talking to a colleague about personal hygiene problems

The law of crucial conversations

At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well. Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period

In summary, people who routinely hold crucial conversations and hold them well are able to express controversial and even risky opinions in a way that gets heard. Their bosses, peers, and direct reports listen without becoming defensive or angry.

On perfecting your communication and negotiation skills, people also read:

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Chapter 2 – Mastering crucial conversations: the power of dialogue

The authors talk about Kevin who was the only one of the eight vice presidents in his company to be identified as exceedingly influential. His influence stems from his ability to approach crucial conversations.

While most people don’t dare directly confronting their bosses, Kevin doesn’t but he does it in a particular way. Kevin’s colleagues for example would resort to silence. He would play no games or tricks; he would even less try to force his arguments on others. Somehow he managed to achieve absolute candor, but he did so in a way that showed deep respect for his boss.

The fool’s choice

Kevin became influential because he is among the people who avoid the fool’s choice.  His colleagues on the contrary went silent because they thought they had to make a choice between two bad alternatives:

  • Option 1: Speak up and turn the most powerful person in the company into their sworn enemy.
  • Option 2: Suffer in silence and make a bad decision that might ruin the company

The mistake most of us make in our crucial conversations is we believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend.

The author reminds us that we began believing in the fool’s choice from an early age. My Dad for example would get upset if we tell him the truth so we learned very early to choose between candor and kindness. If he cooked for the family but the dish wasn’t that delicious, everyone would pretend to like it simply because we avoided the drama.

Beyond the fool’s choice

The question we ought to ask ourselves is: “How can we be 100 percent honest and at the same time be 100 percent respectful?”

Successful people were almost always among the most influential employees in their organizations. They not only refused to make the Fool’s Choice, but they then acted in ways that were far more skilled than their colleagues.

The importance of dialogue

When it comes to risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves and others) out into the open.

That’s it. At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories.

The authors refer to it as a real dialogue: the free flow of meaning between two or more people.

Filling the pool of shared meaning

“We have to develop the tools that make it safe for us to discuss these issues and to come to a shared pool of meaning. And when we do, our lives change.”

Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feelings makes up our personal pool of meaning.

People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to a shared pool—even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.

When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, we’re often at our worst. In order to move to our best, we have to find a way to explain what is in each of our personal pools of meaning—especially our high-stakes, sensitive, and controversial opinions, feelings, and ideas—and to get others to share their pools. We have to develop the tools that make it safe for us to discuss these issues and to come to a shared pool of meaning. And when we do, our lives change.

Whatever the decision-making method, the greater the shared meaning in the pool, the better the choice, the more the unity, and the stronger the conviction—whoever makes the choice.


Chapter 3 – Start with heart how to stay focused on what you really want

How do you encourage the flow of meaning in the face of differing opinions and strong emotions?

The authors suggest a first principle: start with heart, your own heart. Remember that the only person you can directly control is yourself. Because if you can’t get yourself right, you’ll have a hard time getting dialogue right. When conversations become crucial, you’ll resort to the forms of communication that you’ve grown up with—debate, silent treatment, manipulation, and so on.

In Crucial conversations, it is highlighted that the first problem we face in our crucial conversations is not that our behavior degenerates, it’s that our motives do—a fact that we usually miss.

First, focus on what you really want

When you find yourself moving toward silence or violence, stop and pay attention to your motives. The simple act of asking a potent question can have a powerful effect on redirecting our hearts.

In order to move back to motives that allow for dialogue, you must step away from the interaction and look at yourself—much like an outsider. Ask yourself: “What am I doing, and if I had to guess, what does it tell me about my underlying motive?”

So when the conversation becomes difficult, ask yourself: what to do? It’s time to reorient yourself, take out your compass and find true north. You can ask these questions either when you find yourself slipping out of dialogue or as reminders when you prepare to step up to a crucial conversation.

What do I really want for myself?

What do I really want for others?

What do I really want for the relationship?

Second, refuse the fool’s choice

People who are skilled at crucial conversations present their brain with a simple question and they routinely do so: “What do I want for myself, the other person, and the relationship?”

Watch to see if you’re telling yourself that you must choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing, and so on.

Search for the elusive “and”

The best at dialogue refuse Fool’s Choices by setting up new choices. They present themselves with tougher questions—questions that turn the either/or choice into a search for the all-important and ever-elusive and.

Clarify what you don’t want, add it to what you do want, and ask your brain to start searching for healthy options to bring you to dialogue.

Beware of all-or-nothing, situations where you think there are only two choices. Look for a third option. Let’s be creative.

– What do I want?

– What don’t I want?

– How do I get what I want and not get what I don’t want?


Chapter 4- Learn to look: how to notice when safety is at risk

When caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on and why. When a discussion starts to become stressful, we often end up doing the exact opposite of what works. We turn to the less healthy components of our Style under Stress.

Learn to spot crucial conversations

Identify when a conversation becomes crucial (physical reaction, emotion, behavior). You can also identify signs when people start not feeling safe (withdrawal, violence).

When you feel safe, you can say anything. When we believe that the other person cares about our personal interest, we are receptive to his feedback.

Learn to look for safety problems

People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety. They pay attention to the content—that’s a given— and they watch for signs that people are becoming fearful. When friends, loved ones, or colleagues move away from healthy dialogue (freely adding to the pool of meaning)—either forcing their opinions into the pool or purposefully keeping their ideas out of the pool—they immediately turn their attention to whether or not others feel safe. When it’s safe, you can say anything.

When people adopt excessive behaviour (attack, silence) they give us signs that they are not behaving in an appropriate manner and we start to feel unsafe.

It is to our advantage to restore the feeling of security even if usually it’s not our spontaneous reaction.

Silence and violence

As people begin to feel unsafe, they start down one of two unhealthy paths. They move either to silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the pool).

When we are caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s hard to see exactly what we’re talking about. What is happening and why is it happening this way. When the conversation begins to become stressful, we often find ourselves doing the opposite of what we were doing before.

We are turning to less effective behaviours that constitute our style under stress: masking, avoiding, withdrawing, controlling, labeling and attacking.

Consider a few elements

It is best to learn to observe a few elements: the content of the conversation, the reactions of the entourage, the moments when the conversation becomes crucial, the threats to the feeling of security, the movement towards silence or violence and the emergence of our personal style under stress.

In summary: learn to look

To break from this insidious cycle, Learn to Look.

  • Learn to look at content and conditions.
  • Look for when things become crucial.
  • Learn to watch for safety problems.
  • Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence.
  • Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.

discussion between friends

Chapter 5: Make it safe: how to make it safe to talk about almost anything

Step out, make it safe then step back in

When others move to silence or violence, distance yourself from stressful content, restore a sense of security, and then go back to the issue at hand and continue the dialogue.

There are two components to restoring a sense of security.

Decide which condition of safety is at risk

Mutual purpose – the entrance condition

Do others believe you care about their goals in this conversation? Do they trust your motives?

The first is to find mutual purpose (one that takes into account the goals, interests and values of the other) that will help to set aside the assumption that the person is acting in bad faith and at his or her own service. This presupposes that we also believe that the other person is interested in considering our goals, interests and values. Establishing a common goal promotes the feeling of security.

Mutual respect – the continuance condition

Do others believe you respect them?

The second component is the expression of mutual respect. It is a condition necessary to continue a crucial conversation. Respect is like the air we breathe: if you run out, you can’t think about anything else.

When one perceives a lack of respect, the interaction loses its original meaning and becomes an effort to defend his dignity. Emotions shift from fear to anger. Ask yourself: “Do people think I respect them?”

Fortunately, we don’t have to share every goal and respect every element of others. We are all similar to some degree. It is a matter of feeling a certain sympathy or empathy for the other person’s condition as a human being. “Lord, help me to forgive those who sin differently than I do!”

Apologize when it’s appropriate

Do this when you’ve made a mistake that has hurt the others. Express that you’re sorry for participating in creating (or for not notifying) pain or difficulty for others. It restores a respectful bond that will allow the conversation to continue. When you’ve clearly violated respect, apologize.

Use the contrast technique to reassure your interlocutor

When we’re aware that something we’re about to drop into the pool of meaning could create a splash of defensiveness, we use Contrasting to bolster safety—before we see others going to either silence or violence.

You’ll first need to explain that what he seems to fear is not your intention, and then to specify what your intentions are. This is neither an apology nor a denial of reality, but rather putting the situation into context.

Contrasting is a don’t/do statement that:

  • Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part).
  • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part).

When there is a misunderstanding about your intentions, stop, use contrast, then resume the conversation.  

Remember, contrast what you don’t want or intend with what you actually do want or intend. Say it in a way that helps make it safe for the other person.

For example: “I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate the time you take to deal with the finances. I appreciate it very much and I know I really couldn’t have done it as well. However, I do have concerns about how we are using the new electronic banking system.

There are four strategies that can be used to achieve mutual purpose. The best at dialogue use the following four skills to create a Mutual Purpose. If it helps you remember what to do, note that the four skills used in creating Mutual Purpose form the acronym CRIB.

Commit to seek Mutual Purpose

Commit to work together to achieve a mutual goal. It is the commitment to stay in the conversation until you are has found a shared goal. This implies putting aside the belief that our choice is absolutely the best and only one and that we will never be satisfied. until we have exactly what we want right now. We need to open our minds to the possibility that there is a different choice that could make everyone’s business.

Recognize the purpose behind the strategy

Rather than confronting each other on different ways to satisfy our needs, it is worth better sharing the nature of our needs, then looking for a way to mutually satisfy our needs. Rather than fighting over which movie to watch, once their mutual needs are met. Claire and Paul went for a car ride to get out of the city and to get a clearer idea of their leisure time. home and spend some time alone without the children.

Invent a mutual purpose

It may be helpful to find a higher level of mutual purpose that will help to make choices in complex situations. Example: Marital and family needs come before professional aspirations.

Brainstorm new strategies

Freely associate to find ways to meet everyone’s needs. Suspend judgment for now and think creatively.

Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for progress. Apply certain techniques for certain crucial conversations can already make a difference.5

Chapter 6: Master my stories: how to stay in dialogue when you’re angry, scared or hurt

This chapter explores how to gain control of crucial conversations by learning how to take charge of your emotions.

Emotions don’t just happen. First, others don’t make you mad, you make you mad. You make you scared, annoyed, or insulted. You and only you create your emotions. Claim two. Once you’ve created your upset emotions, you have only two options: You can act on them or be acted on by them. That is, when it comes to strong emotions, you either find a way to master them or fall hostage to them.

Stories create feelings

There is an intermediate step between what others do and how we feel. There’s always an intermediate step because actions themselves can’t and don’t cause emotional reactions.

What is this intermediate step? Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. We add meaning to the action we observed. We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior. Why were they doing that? We also add judgment—is that good or bad? And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.

stories in crucial conversations

It’s our stories that drive our emotions and not other people’s actions.

Skills for mastering our stories

The judgment we make about our perceptions (good/bad, fair/unfair, good/egoist) brings us to the emotion, which pushes us to action.

To regain control

Slow down and take over this path.

– Notice your behavior.

– Get in touch with your feelings.

– Analyze the stories you tell yourself.

– Get back to the facts.

Analyze your stories

Question your feelings and your stories. Don’t confuse stories with facts. Separate fact from story by focusing on behavior.

Clever or harmful stories

The authors call these imaginative and self-serving concoctions “clever stories.” They’re clever because they allow us to feel good about behaving badly. Better yet, they allow us to feel good about behaving badly even while achieving abysmal results.

– The Victim’s Story: It’s not my fault!

– The Naughty Story: It’s your fault.

– The Powerless Story: There was nothing else to do!

Why do we tell ourselves clever stories?

They are used to save face when one is ashamed.

– You think you should have helped someone, but you didn’t.

– You think you should apologize, but you don’t.

– You think you should work late at night to finish an engagement but you return to the house.

– You say yes when you know you should say no6

– You think you should talk to someone about a concern but you don’t

– You do less than your share and think you should acknowledge it but you don’t.

– You think you should listen respectfully to the feedback, but you become defensive to the place.

– You see problems with the plan that someone is presenting and you think you should say so but you don’t.

– You fail to complete a task on time and believe that others should be notified, but you don’t.

– You have information that a colleague should know, but you keep it to yourself.

Self-justification is not what we really want.

Tell the rest of the story

Tell a useful story that stirs the emotions that lead to healthy action. Once we’ve learned to recognize the clever stories we tell ourselves, we can move to the final Master My Stories skill. The dialogue-smart recognize that they’re telling clever stories, stop, and then do what it takes to tell a useful story. A useful story, by definition, creates emotions that lead to healthy action—such as dialogue.

Turn victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able.

– Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?

– Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do what that person is doing?

– What do I really want? What do I really want for myself? For others? For the relationship?

– What would I do if I really wanted these results?

Chapter 7: State my path: How to speak persuasively, not abrasively

You have delicate, unattractive or controversial opinions to share. You want to do so while allowing your contact person to feel safe and respected. You know that it’s better to say the right thing to the right people, with humility and diplomacy, knowing that you do not hold the absolute truth and that you have an advantage to understand the other’s point of view.

The more vigorously you push (The truth is that… Everyone… It’s clear that…), the more people resist.

It is better to keep its values but soften its approach. What then to do?

Maintain safety

In order to speak honestly when honesty could easily offend others, we have to find a way to maintain safety. It can be done if you know how to carefully blend three ingredients: confidence, humility and skill.

State my path

State your path will help you to stay in dialogue and to have a healthy conversation about a tough topic. When you have a tough message to share, or when you are so convinced of your own rightness that you may push too hard, remember to STATE your path:

Share your facts. Start with the least controversial, most persuasive elements from your Path to Action.

Tell your story. Explain what you’re beginning to conclude.

Ask for others’ paths. Encourage others to share both their facts and their stories.

Talk tentatively. State your story as a story—don’t disguise it as a fact.

Encourage testing. Make it safe for others to express differing or even opposing views.

The goal is not to persuade the other that we are right. It is not about “winning”. Above all, we want to be understood. We try to help others see how a reasonable, rational and decent person can come to construct the story we want to tell.

By asking others to share their point of view, you are showing humility and respect. Be open to learning. Encourage others to express the facts, their history and their feelings. You would like them to help you see how a person reasonable, rational and decent can end up constructing a different story from their history.

Chapter 8: Explore others’ paths: how to listen when others blow up or clam up

You can’t force others to dialogue. But you can make it safer for them to collaborate in the dialogue.

Be sincere in expressing your desire to know more, show them that you are truly ready to listen. Sincerity plays a key role here, when you do invite people to share their views, you must mean it.

Instead of being angry, be genuinely curious. You really want to know what created this situation in the first place.

With patience, you might discover elements you didn’t know. Ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person say such things”.

Encourage others to retrace their path

As you travel the path of others, you will understand why they think this way, even if it’s false. When faced with your partner’s silence or violence, be patient.

Under the influence of adrenaline, it may continue to push too hard for some time before it can regain its balance. Strong emotions do not change as quickly as the thoughts.

Let the safe environment you’ve created make an impact. When you are faced with a person who closes (silence) or screams (violence), it is as if you were in the middle of a TV show that you missed the beginning. This may seem incomprehensible.

Rather than reacting to an incomplete story that seems incomprehensible to us, it is better to ask what interesting story our counterpart told himself to get to this point.

Get out of the interaction and make the environment safe.

They must be convinced that they do not want to hurt people. Then resume the dialogue by inviting the person to tell us their story from the facts, through the story they inspired and the feelings that they associated with it.

Encourage the free flow of meaning

To encourage the free flow of meaning and help others leave silence or violence behind, explore their Paths to Action. Start with an attitude of curiosity and patience. This helps restore safety.

Then, use four powerful listening skills to retrace the other person’s Path to Action to its origins.

  • Ask. Start by simply expressing interest in the other person’s views.
  • Mirror. Increase safety by respectfully acknowledging the emotions people appear to be feeling.
  • Paraphrase. As others begin to share part of their story, restate what you’ve heard to show not just that you understand, but also that it’s safe for them to share what they’re thinking.
  • Prime. If others continue to hold back, prime. Take your best guess at what they may be thinking and feeling

In summary, understanding the other person’s point of view does not mean that you agree or that you will agree to support him in its projects. We first want to understand why they feel how they feel and why they do what they do.

When you share your views

As you begin to share your views, remember:

  • Agree. Agree when you share views.
  • Build. If others leave something out, agree where you share views, then build.
  • Compare. When you do differ significantly, don’t suggest others are wrong. Compare your two views.


Chapter 9- Move to Action: how to turn crucial conversations into action and results

The dialogue allows us to fill the shared pool of meaning with information from which we will be able to better understand the situation and then take action. But dialogue is not the decision.

Many situations go awry because people don’t agree on how the decision will be made. Just because everyone can contribute to providing information doesn’t mean that everyone will be involved in the final decision. Who will make the decision? And why? Make it clear how decisions will be made—who will be involved and why.

When the line of authority is clear, that those in authority are clearly defined, they make the final decisions without any problem. When all those who have provided information expect to be involved in the final decision, this may become more problematic.

When the line of authority is unclear, deciding how to decide can be very difficult. The discussion should include “how will the final decision be made?

Decide how to decide

There are four ways of making decisions, varying in the degree of involvement and by the ease of implementation. :


Decisions are made without involving others. There is no implication. External forces impose a demand on us without the flexibility to make our own decision. We are not committed enough to get involved. We just let others decide. We don’t decide what to do; we decide how to organize ourselves to get what we are asked done. Sometimes, it’s all about leaving the final decision in the hands of someone we trust.


Input is gathered from the group and then a subset decides. Decision-makers invite others to influence them before they make a choice. They gather information, evaluate options, make a decision, and make a decision then inform the general population of their choice.


An agreed-upon percentage swings the decision. In situations where there are several good options available to decision-makers, the use of voting saves time. But the participants must be able to live with any voted options.


Everyone comes to an agreement and then supports the final decision. This can be a blessing or a frustrating path. It means that you are discussing until everyone really agrees with a decision. This can produce phenomenal cohesion and high quality decisions. If misused, it can also lead to horrible loss of time. It should only be used for complex subjects of very high importance or subjects where everyone must absolutely support the final choice.

Four Important Questions

When choosing among the four methods of decision making, consider the following questions:

Who cares? Determine who genuinely wants to be involved in the decision along with those who will be affected. These are your candidates for involvement. Don’t involve people who don’t care.

Who knows? Identify who has the expertise you need to make the best decision. Encourage these people to take part. Try not to involve people who contribute no new information.

Who must agree? Think of those whose cooperation you might need in the form of authority or influence in any decisions you might make. It’s better to involve these people than to surprise them and then suffer their open resistance.

How many people is it worth involving? Your goal should be to involve the fewest number of people while still considering the quality of the decision along with the support that people will give it. Ask: “Do we have enough people to make a good choice? Will others have to be involved to gain their commitment?

Clarify things

In summary, it is so easy to get into misunderstandings that it is better to clarify things. Determine who does what by when. Make the deliverables crystal clear. Set a follow-up time. Record the commitments and then follow up. Finally, hold people accountable to their promises.

On perfecting your communication and negotiation skills, people also read:

Getting to yes summary

Never split the difference summary